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The Press-Enterprise, November 17, 2009

Protections to be reconsidered for endangered Riverside fairy shrimp and two plants
By Janet Zimmerman

Federal wildlife officials have agreed to consider additional protection for the Riverside fairy shrimp and two Southern California plant species to settle lawsuits by an environmental group trying to undo decisions made by the George W. Bush administration.

The shrimp, one of the rarest freshwater crustaceans, lives in seasonal pools between Perris and Hemet.

Also at issue are the Coachella Valley milk vetch, a plant with showy purple-pink flowers found only in sandy areas of eastern Riverside County near Palm Springs, and the willowy monardella, a perennial unique to San Diego County. All three are on the endangered list.

The dispute centers on habitat considered critical for the species' survival. A federal "critical habitat" designation affords additional scrutiny of proposed developments. In the Bush years, many critical habitats were reduced in size or eliminated.

The new agreement, reached Monday, "bodes well for the recovery of these species that are teetering on the brink of extinction, to have a second hard look taken at what's essential to really conserve them," Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday.

The habitats of all three are threatened by urban development, off-road vehicles, water diversion, grazing and agricultural, she said.

The Tucson-based center began suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 over the denial of federal protections for 8 million acres that are home to 55 imperiled species, including the fairy shrimp, milk vetch and monardella.

The organization contends the Bush administration manipulated scientific data for the benefit of private interests.

The U.S. inspector general's office found in 2007 that Julie MacDonald, who oversaw fish and wildlife and parks, was "heavily involved with editing, commenting on and reshaping" scientific reports related to the endangered species program. MacDonald resigned in 2006.

Since then, Fish and Wildlife has agreed to re-evaluate critical habitat designations for 23 of the 55 species named by the center, and in many cases revised them upward, Anderson said.

The fairy shrimp has 306 acres of habitat; the monardella has 73 acres; and the milk vetch has none. Fish and Wildlife originally identified 4,822 acres essential for the survival and recovery of the fairy shrimp, 17,746 acres for the milk vetch and 1,863 acres for the monardella.

A critical-habitat designation does not prohibit development, but it requires that any projects involving a federal agency go before the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure they don't jeopardize the survival of the species.

According to the settlement agreements, new critical habitat designations for the three species will be proposed in 2011 and finalized for the Riverside fairy shrimp and willowy monardella in 2012 and for the Coachella Valley milk vetch in 2013.

The habitat proposals will include an economic analysis of potential costs associated with the designation and a 60-day public comment period, Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jane Hendron said.

The lawsuits have kept the agency from doing its job, she said.

"It just demonstrates the fact that our ability to set our own priorities as far as listing activities has been usurped ... by the continual cycle of litigation," Hendron said.

© 2009 Press-Enterprise Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton